How my in-laws showed me another Italy
My childrenâs nonni (Italian for grandparents) were from Puglia, the toe of the Italian boot, in Italyâs sun-bleached south. With its creamy white beaches, fields of figs and olives, and rustic-yet-glorious cuisine, Puglia is beloved by Italians â" and increasingly foreigners â" as a summer escape: my in-laws helped me to discover its heart.
Anna and Marcello first met as teenagers on the train on their way to school. Marcelloâs father was a farmer, one of seven brothers who stare fiercely out of a black-and-white family photograph that looks as if it were taken in the Wild West: wiry, tanned men in vests, shirts and braces.
I was told that Marcello inherited his piercing blue eyes from his mother, who shyly looks out of the Wild West photograph too, and was, I was told, beautiful, with âeyes like a catâ.
Annaâs father had died in Russia in the Second World War when she was just a baby, (âImagine,â she said, with characteristic grace, âhe was from Puglia and this heat, and dying in the snowâ).
Her redoubtable mother Ines â" a single mother in patriarchal post-war southern Italy â" went on to run a seafront nightclub, where she kept a knife under the counter to ward off any difficult customers.
For 14 years, I have visited Puglia every summer, staying in a villa built on the site of Inesâs long-gone disco. Itâs at Campo di Mare, a seen-better-days coastal resort near Brindisi. White-washed villas line the seafront promenade, some of them simple, some more flamboyant: there is a local fashion for spiralling fire escapes.
In the villaâs kitchen, Anna and Marcello conjured up the most exquisite f ood: octopus cooked in its own ink; densely intense aubergine filled with ham, capers, anchovies and mozzarella; riso cozze patate (rice, mussels and potatoes), and raw sea urchins. No one else dared cook: if they did, Marcello would hover, those fiercely twinkling-blue eyes peering over his glasses, rendering even the most confident cook nervous.
I used to feel half-hearted about Campo di Mare, which has three beautiful looping lagoons along the coast, but is marred by the sight of a great power station in the distance. Over the years my feelings changed: I began to see the charm of somewhere where you only saw Italian tourists, where you recognised people from year to year, and where there is unselfconsciously retro entertainment, such as crooners and an unreconstructed beauty contest (contestants accompanied by a bevy of matriarchal minders).
In the neighbouring village of San Gennaro, there is nightly ballroom dancing in the summer holiday months of July and Augus t, and elderly locals sit on plastic chairs surveying elderly dancers, who glide solemnly across the piazza. Kids cycle manically up and down the seafront, rocking bedtimes that would give English parents palpitations, teenagers meander in giggling, flirting groups, and families sit outside their houses on plastic chairs, turning the street into their sitting room.
Anna and Marcello came from a different world to me. It seemed barely changed from the Italy of the 1950s: a world where you had a proper tablecloth for every meal, a primo, secondo and dessert. They sourced different foodstuffs from specific villages (meat and cheese came from Mesagne, 10km away, melons and peaches from a particular family in inland San Pietro), and preserved summer tomatoes in jars ready for the winter. They were both extraordinary cooks and hosts, never wrongfooted by the sudden appearance of extra guests.
During one long sun-dappled family lunch, after the homemade limoncello, a Spanish friend asked Anna how she cooked the melanzane ripiene (stuffed aubergine), and tears welled in his eyes at the memory of the taste. Marcello used to collect prickly pears from the cacti that grew around his land and sit with a bucketful, expertly peeling them ready to be chilled in the fridge, perfectly icy cool in boiling mid-summer.
He made great vats of lemon granita (crushed ice), and sought out the sweetest peaches for his peach-loving Anglo-Italian grandson Jack. My in-laws introduced me to friselle, true peasant food, dried bread that you soak in water, then top with tomatoes, capers, olive oil and salt, substantial enough to be a meal.
Marcello also cooked the fish. He took us and the children to the blue-painted fishing b oats at San Gennaro that arrived at the nearby tiny port early in the morning, and lifting up the children, he showed them the rainbow catch tangled in the net.
Once we visited the resort in September, when the summer crowds had gone. We went down to the empty beach and two men waded through the sea, pulling up the nets. Shoals of silver-flashing fish leapt from the surface, and they gave us some of their catch. As I walked back to the house I said to Marcello in amazement, âthey fished them out so quicklyâ. With that big shout of laughter that was so infectious, he said, âitâs because itâs illegal!â
We often explored Pugliaâs south, deep into the area called Salento, where itâ s rare to hear a foreign voice. We visited a picnic spot high above the spa town of Santa Cesarea Terme, where neo-Moorish buildings perch above the drama of the rocky coast. The picnic place has tables and chairs, and a huge tree where Anna and Marcelloâs 10 grandchildren climbed, balancing on its branches like curious fruit. We travelled the length of the southern Ionian coast: the thronged, blindingly white beach they call the âMaldives of Salentoâ, and the rocky inlet of San Gregorio, with its glass-clear water.
Marcello and his friend Gianfranco fished for sea urchins, and we then ate the roe, churned up with pasta, all of us crammed into their friendâ s small holiday house. This, with high star-vaulted ceilings and intricately patterned tiled floors, is in Giuiliano di Lecce, a beautiful, small and undiscovered town, where a few narrow golden stone houses are centred on the church piazza, and the only local activity seems to be the mass, punctuating the day.
Marcello also told me about the Gargano, the hilly area to the north of Puglia, where once, stationed nearby as he worked for the military, he met Padre Pio, the bearded Capuchin friar who is revered across the region and beyond, later designated a saint.
Marcello described visiting the pilgrimage town of San Giovanni Rotondo, where the Padre lived, reached via a winding road and perched on a mist-swathed hill, and entering a c hurch that brimmed with muttering devotees. He was ushered into an upstairs room to meet the holy man. Marcello added gravely, in his deeply accented gravel-voice, an accomplished storyteller, âI had the impression of a man who was very, very tired.â
Last summer, Marcello and Anna took us to see the Fratelli Coli in the tiny town of Cutrofiano, two septuagenarian brothers, sixth generation potters: Marcello showed me with pride the 17th-century kiln. As we browsed around the dusty workshops, and watched a pot take shape on the dusty potterâs wheel, a brass band marched past. I have, from this visit, a tiny clip of film where five-year-old Valentina runs to hear the band, and then retreats, hands over her ears.
You can see Marcello, with that characteristic shout of laughter, hold out his hands to her. He knew well Valentinaâs love-hate relationship with the brass band: during the largest celebration of the summer, Ferragosto, when the Madonna is carried through the streets, Marcello had carried her to follow the crowd, her hand tapping out the beat on his shoulder.
Less than five months later, Anna collapsed at home, lost without warning, on January 6. Then, 10 days later, Marcello died just as suddenly, it seemed from a broken heart.
Life changed, turning into a darker, different reality. This summer, for the first time, we went to Puglia without them. Under the sunshine, against the blue of the sea and sky, and the pale silk of the beaches, there was a great absence, a missing that will never be found.
And a quickening sense of everyoneâs mortality: our eldest son Gabriel said to me, as we stood in the kitchen with its lemon-patterned oil cloth and whirring, wobbling fan: âOne day someone will think of me for the last time, and Iâll never be thought of againâ. I blathered on about how people leave a legacy: genetic and emotional. He said, âcan we stop talking about this?â
But Luca, my husba nd, looked suddenly like his father as he roasted meat on the outdoor grill, only lacking the cigarette that heâd have definitely had on the go, and peeled prickly pears into a bucket, covering his hands in spines. We tried to recreate the rich lamb and pork ragu that Anna had made every Sunday lunchtime for at least 40 years.
We revisited the picnic spot above Santa Cesarea Terme where the children climbed back up into the great sheltering tree. We drank homemade limoncello in the heat of the summer evening. We walked behind the brass band on Ferragosto, following the Madonna.
I expected to see them: Anna drinking her morning espresso, under the sunshade, enjoying the coolest part of the day, Marcello waving from the promenade, impatient for us to come back from the beach. To be close to them, weâll always return to Puglia, as this is a place with a soul.
Citalia (01293 831 970; citalia.com), an Italian specialist, has a 10-night holiday to Puglia, on a B&B basis, from Â£3,526 for a family of four. The package includes a stay at the four-star Grand Hotel Masseria Santa Lucia in Ostuni, featuring two interconnecting rooms, a boat trip excursion around the Salento coast, hire car and return flight from London Gatwick with easyJet. The offer is valid for departures in 2019.Source: Google News Italy | Netizen 24 Italy